To the killjoys, you can keep your assumptions — Virgil Abloh is one step ahead of you. The Off-White founder, designer and DJ finds motivation in looking at his moves from “the naysayers’ perspectives.”
“I have this undying motivation to work and think hard [because] it’s what I do with everything,” he tells Billboard. “I nicknamed this [way of thinking] ‘the Scorpion.’ It’s a metaphor for potential death. A scorpion can potentially kill you at all times. You have that in the back of your brain. It’s the ability to self critique yourself. What can haters say? What holes can they poke in this? They’ll probably ask: ‘Do you even DJ? Do you know how to work a Pioneer? Are you using Serrato? Do you know how to mix?’ From the style of DJing, the type of music I play, to every song I choose, it all comes from knowing the 30 different points of potential death, critique style.”
Yes, he’s thought about how some may not be aware of his serious passion for DJing and finds the criticism amusing — he doesn’t parade his favorite pastime on social media, but it’s been a serious affair since he was a teenager. Abloh DJ’d through high school and college, listened to his “idol back then” A-Trak, and watched legendary DJ battles such as those between X-Men and Invisibl Skratch Piklz on VHS.
His sole focus now is to get better at mastering the boards and embrace, foster, and popularize positivity throughout club culture. Like his musical palette, DJing events range in scale from a Las Vegas residency to recently a DJ set at Ray-Ban x Boiler Room event at Brooklyn Warehouse. The event, which took place on June 30, featured Abloh, Benji B, No Vacancy Inn (Acyde & Tremaine), and Heron Preston, taking full control of the night. NY Theo, a.k.a, Theophilus London, played a surprised set, which included his new collaborative song with Tame Impala called “Whiplash.”
Here’s a taste of Abloh’s set, exclusively premiering here on Billboard.
Shortly after his Ray-Ban x Boiler Room set in New York City, Abloh shared his thoughts with Billboard on his place in club culture, judgment, and his work as a member of Paris, IL, a duo that consists of him and Guillaume Berg.
Let’s take it back for a second. How did DJing become a passion of yours?
The plan for me has always been to never formally define. I’ve always been into different genres of music, so playing [music] has been something I’ve been doing since high school. It’s been 15 years now. I’ve been DJing since I was 18, 19, through high school and college. This has always been one of my favorite pastimes — representing different genres of music and bases of nightlife.
I’d transition from hip-hop scratching, in the vein of DJing, to listening to Gilles Peterson. I’d link my dad’s fascination with jazz and soul to the hip-hop I was listening to. I grew up listening to hip-hop such as Common and Tribe Called Quest. House electronic music wasn’t at the forefront, and it’s a shame [seeing that] I’m from Chicago. I learned [about] Detroit techno [through] Benji B. For a kid, that was the way you learned in the ’80s. There was no music education in those genres, just hip-hop.
Some aren’t aware as to how back DJing goes for you.
Nah, [and] I love it. It parallels to skateboarding. It’s one of these things [about the] ’90s that if you do it in the 2000s, people automatically assume that you’re brand new to it or jumped on a bandwagon. That’s not the case. I started DJing during the wave when turntablism was popular. My first turntables were plastic, belt-driven, Geminis. You’d buy it from the back of a catalog. My idol back then was A-Trak. I’d learn how to scratch with my friends after high school. I eventually had my pair of Technics 1200 and I’d lug them around from house party to house party in high school, playing off the same 12 records. I’ve DJ’d since that era, but then kind of took a break. Then realizing there was a lull in American club culture, I started listening to Gilles Peterson and Benji B. religiously. I listened to Benji B for 12 years straight, once a week. That’s my backbone and my palette is gauged off of both of them.
In America, especially, there’s been years [where there’s been] a lack of culture around music, which is pop music. The DJ’s role in current culture in America [has] wavered. I used to go to New York and watch DJ Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito [Garcia] play in the Meatpacking District. I remember years after, those parties and vibes weren’t there anymore. When I saw my entry point back into DJing, it was mainly to bring a [different] point of view into the role of playing songs.
You don’t really speak on DJing, that may be the case. Also, some were introduced to you DJing through Been Trill. What’s the status with Been Trill?
That was a summer. It was a magical time in New York. Speaking only for myself, the vibe was to get in the forefront of the culture. I take DJing super seriously. I wanted to gauge the culture and bring an energy. There were newer songs that were coming out that weren’t being played in the club. While we were recording [Kanye West’s] My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in Hawaii, the summer before Been Trill, we’d just go out. It’s when I first got the idea of kicking off local DJs. No disrespect, I hate when people do this, but when it got real late, I’d say, “Let me get on your equipment and play stuff off your computer or let me plug my iPhone off an AUX cord.” [My set would] get a different response. That’s how Been Trill came about. It’s no longer, but it’s just a spark that had me DJ as much as I DJ today.
I love the notion that people weren’t familiar with me DJing before Been Trill. I wonder or think about if people think I don’t really DJ. [Laughs] You’re right though. I never really broadcasted it but I was also the kid practicing crab scratches or watching every X-Men versus Invisibl Skratch Piklz battle that there is on VHS. But if I’m not Instagram-ing that or Flashback Friday-ing then it’s like it’s not [real]. It’s cool. [I] like playing with people’s misconceptions.
I think that’s the digital world we live in though. We may publicize our passion because we’re proud of ourselves and our growth, and are excited, but there’s also this pressure to do so in order to prove yourself. Within club culture, as with many pockets of music, there’s a case of snobbery. What makes a DJ a DJ in your mind?
I love playing commercial music in credible environments, and play credible music in commercial environments to connect the culture, in the Malcolm McLaren spirit. It’s about breaking down the stigmas of different stereotypes and snobbery. It happens on both sides. It’s about freedom and bringing something to the table when stepping up to CDJs or the clubs. The sets at each [event] are drastically different but they’re meant to be eye-opening. I love playing your real favorite songs versus your favorite commercial songs in the same set.
There’s a different word for DJing off an auxiliary chord. I wouldn’t say it’s not DJing but I wouldn’t call it the same thing as matching three beats on three different CDJs, and one’s on loop and one’s some crazy house song. You bring up a good point though. I love when a niche culture can be invaded. It helps reassure the foundation. DJing is the new golf. Everyone DJs, doesn’t matter how good you are or not — it’s a commonality. Everyone has an opinion on music. It’s great that more people are getting into the art form of it. With that, there’s a great responsibility to be a great DJ. I, by no means, am at the level I want to be at yet but I am in a space.
Besides being a part of Paris, IL, what’s your role on the Bromance record label?
It feels like a modern Def Jam. The talent of artists and DJs are at a high level. We can play at a credible nightclub in Europe or play in New York with a set that fits that space as well. Doing what I do, that interaction of playing 200 nights out of the year, gives me a specific point of view when it comes to production. My label mates on Bromance and I vibe. I give suggestions on my projects. I have connections in the music industry. It’s a lot of making phone calls and suggesting people work together. I’d say Malcolm McLaren is more what my goal is to be in such culture — it’s to connect dots. He’d connect dots between punk music and hip-hop in Japan and in London. He’d connect South African rhythms and vibes with what has happening in New York and London by sharing music.
Me and a whole host of kids from downtown cities all over America spawned this newest hip-hop era of DJing, where there’s a particular style of playing trap music and there’s a particular community [for it]. It’s a current culture of DJing. I think me and friends, over the last three or four years, have been at the forefront of that. Anytime you become a standard, it’s kind of [you’re] ready to move on. So, Guillaume Berg and I, in efforts of pushing the needle, started playing in a way that would acknowledge classic house, acknowledging classic electronic production that fell in between techno and house music. Techno being a very European sound of rave culture, and house music where I’m from, Chicago. We started a new group in order to [offer] that sound and a relief from trap music parties … With having that level influence and being schooled from club culture, playing an hour and half 808s and trial music isn’t doing club hit culture purism any justice. [That’s why we] started Paris, IL on Bromance.
What label did you look up to when growing up?
I was always into Boot Camp Clik and Dru Ha. He was the head of the label. Those positions don’t exactly exist anymore. The older construct of how record labels work versus how they work now, it’s a lot of networking and being in tune. We’re all just individuals with talent. I think record labels are too corporate to capture the energy of the culture.
Club culture, in America and in Europe, has also been an escape for the LGBTQ community and the youth but then you see all these violent attacks and shootings occurring around the world. How does club culture play a part of easing the aftermath?
Club culture is more of an escape. Club culture is non-political. It may be one of the few safe havens left for non-judgmental existence. You have political and social events happening in the world, climates if you will. All that melts away. It’s the DJ’s responsibly to curate the music so people fall into this comfort zone and have the best night of their life. You could trust being in a peaceful place. The Pulse shooting broke the trust. It’s damaging. Like Chromeo said, when these attacks are geared at youth culture and where they congregate, I take a specific offense to that. These things are very misguided. Our world is in a state of flux. It’s sad that the youth culture falls victim to violence.
What are you looking to do now?
At the position that I am, I look at DJing to inspire kids to cheat the 10 different obstacles that are in their way so they can do it, but also build off the foundation. It’s sad that people are listening to only Soundcloud, and not listening to these great DJs, like Benji B, while they’re still alive and playing on the forefront. If I stand on any soap box, it’s to share the references that I learned from. It’s the question I get asked the most, “How do I do what you do?” Listen to Gilles Peterson for 10 years.
I like the phrase “acquired taste.” In our current culture, everyone moves together. If this song is hot, everyone thinks it’s hot. And the song is hot! But things that aren’t commercial or are so readily available [is] still great music. Ever so often, I tweet that this may be the best time in music. There’s no record label barrier. I can listen to a kid from London on Soundcloud. His or her song can have 10,000 plays and they could never be on a record label. It can be the biggest song and be produced off a laptop.
It’s about adopting an attitude of positivity. There will be more great DJs than there will be more great clubs. I fall into a weird place when young people romance the glory days. These are the glory days. The time is now. The time is now for people that are motivated and have a vision to put themselves on the forefront. There’s no obstacle than just getting off the couch and doing it. No naysayers can stop you. It sounds idealist but you have to play. People have to hear you. You have to put in the work. Our goals as DJs is to liven the club culture.
I think a good gauge of growth is once wearing Moncler in that photo of you, Kanye West, Don C and all the other guys at Paris Fashion Week years ago, to you now collaborating with Moncler. Do you remember that?
That’s the most iconic photo. To put it all in perspective, I come from a lineage of crazy kids — look at Kanye, Don C, everyone in that photo. We were the kids that weren’t supposed to be there — literally. We break every stereotype. We bring positive energy, creativity and hard work. None of us have stopped working since that photo. Don C and I have a store, Kanye West is the most important artist of our generation, by a mile. You have Taz [Arnold] from Sa-Ra, Chris Julian from Fruition, building stores. We’re all Chicago kids. We came at the culture in a bunch of different formats through hard work. The output is high considering the projects since that photo … We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture like the culture we loved growing up. What else were we supposed to do?